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Accrediting body places Harris-Stowe on notice, but officials won’t stop recruiting

Harris Stowe State University on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, in St. Louis, Mo. The historically Black college and university is one among 12 who received bomb threats on Tuesday.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Harris-Stowe State University's accreditation could be in jeopardy. The Higher Learning Commission placed the university on notice, saying it is out of compliance with agency requirements.

An independent organization that accredits universities has placed Harris-Stowe State University on notice that it has fallen out of compliance with key requirements.

The Higher Learning Commission completed its 2016 to 2021 review of the university last spring. In a letter earlier this month, the commission informed Harris-Stowe that it was placing the university on notice because of a delayed 2021 financial audit and unclear metrics for student academic performance outcomes and graduation rates. The agency also cited its concerns over Harris-Stowe’s academic program review system.

Over the past five years, Harris-Stowe has dealt with a number of challenges that disrupted financial and academic recordkeeping, university President LaTonia Collins Smith said.

“Within that five-year period there have been three different presidents and an interim president,” she said. “But not only that, we were impacted by a global pandemic.”

Harris-Stowe has been fully accredited by the Higher Learning Commission for nearly 100 years.

Collins Smith, who became president in March, said transitioning from working at school to working remotely presented challenges for staff.

“There was a period of time where we were at home trying to juggle manual processes, from the comfort of your home versus also being in person in your office space,” she said.

To remedy some of the commission’s concerns, the university hired a new chief financial officer, appointed another comptroller and created a compliance officer position to oversee the financial processes. Collins Smith said the university is up to date with its 2021 audits.

The university also developed a key metric for student success outcomes, which Collins Smith said will be detailed in the university’s strategic plan on Jan. 3. The plan will include a data dashboard that houses the university’s assessments of its students. The university also created more positions to help track student performance across all academic programs.

Collins Smith said she has assured students that the university is still accredited and that they can continue taking courses. She also let donors know that she is doing everything she can to keep the school accredited. She said she is actively recruiting students and attracting donors.

“It does not stop the operation of the university,” Collins Smith said. “Could it hinder us from being able to attract students? It could, but it does not change our mission.”

Retaining students and helping them graduate are among Collins Smith’s goals as president. In March, the university created a new position to lead its efforts to improve retention and completion rates.

“These are stopgap measures that we are putting in place to help support our students,” she said.

The commission will review the university’s improvement plan in February 2024 and determine whether the university will remain accredited later that year.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.